Uncertainty makes for fascinating elections, and David Cunliffe has added to that by not even being willing to show solidarity with the Greens. But as fun as the tealeaves game is, voters are going to need better answers from the major party leaders

New Zealand First in 1996. The Maori Party in 2008. There are times when the minor parties have provided some major shocks and made a major difference as to who gets to govern New Zealand. But one thing you thought you could count on this year was the Labour-Greens bloc. Only it turns out it's not that simple.

Every poll in recent months has put Nationals support up against the Labour-Greens support. The understanding has been that National is up against a duo to their left; not just the Opposition, but a third party of unprecedented scale in the MMP era. As Andrew Geddis and I have banged on for the past couple of years, one of the key challenges for that left bloc was to ready voters for the prospect of the second largest party in parliament forming a government.

The anticipation of a close election race this year was because late last year that centre-left bloc was ahead of National and it was game on.

But in recent weeks two things have happened to muddy that picture. First, the Greens have slid a little in the pols. It's far from catastrophic, but the party that was getting as high as 15 percent is now averaging 10.8 percent in our polls of polls. That's back to near where New Zealand First ended up in 2002 – not so unprecedented anymore.

Then, this past weekend, David Cunliffe told Paddy Gower on The Nation that there was no guarantee that Labour would do business with the Greens after election day. Despite all the talk of partnership and the feeling if there was one thing you could count on the coalition front it was a Labour-Greens alliance, there was the Labour leader refusing to rule out doing to the Greens what Helen Clark did to them in the past – preferring Winston Peters over them.

Not only that, Cunliffe retracted former leader David Shearer's promise of a proportional Cabinet, with the Greens getting the same percentage of ministers as it did voters. That deal could have seen the likes of Catherine Delahunty and Eugenie Sage in cabinet ahead of Phil Goff or even Shearer himself. Cunliffe said:

David Shearer's a fine guy, but we're different roosters. I'm not doing it that way. I'm going to do it after the election in private with my Green colleagues."

While that is not an outright rejection, but it's clearly a distancing of his party from his closest allies and a signal to the Greens that they can't expect any favours.

Some have criticised such coalition questioning as pointless. Which is nonsense. Day after day we've seen stories about National's coalition conundrums, with little being asked of Labour. And here we immediately see a line drawn between presumed allies.

As Gower pointed out, Labour is asking the public to do something it has never done before – let the second largest party in parliament form a government. For it to have the trust it needs, surely Labour needs to offer more transparency than that. To refuse to answer questions about a colaition even with your best mate, and to say that any deals will only be done after the election, lacks respect for what the party is asking of voters.

Cunliffe said the voters have the right to choose who governs. But that argument misses the point that it's only an informed choice if they know what that government might look like.

Why should voters trust Labour with such a bold move to a second-place-led government, if they don't have a clear idea of what sort of government they'd be backing? Cunliffe is surely going to have to be more transparent than that.

It's fair to say that more will be expected of John Key as well. So far he has moved from declaring how transparent he would be this year to indicating he won't decide on any electorate deals until the campaign is under way. If that's his idea of transparency, Lord help us when he's feeling opaque.

One thing about the uncertainty introduced by Cunliffe, however, is that if fits the mood of the times. The minor parties have all to play for this year and the uncertainty surrounding them is arguably greater than ever. Oh, we know where ACT and United Future stand. But National won't rule out New Zealand First, Labour won't rule in the Greens, New Zealand First is open to all-comers (or none), Labour could accept Mana in government but not Hone Harawira in cabinet; and the Maori Party could go either way.

Oh, and then there's the Conservative Party, which may be a wasted two percent party of less consequence than even the Christians of days gone by, or could have a seat gifted to it and win the election for the centre-right.

Boy oh boy, the joy of uncertainty. But I suspect voters may not share my sense of fun on this one and will start demanding answers before long so that they can go into this critical election with their eyes wide open.

Comments (8)

by Mike Osborne on March 05, 2014
Mike Osborne

Given that, in my opinion, large swathes of the population don't know how to vote under MMP to fulfil their political intentions, such complex choices are probably not going to be properly reflected in the results at the ballot box.

And the government's ignoring of the MMP recommendations isn't helping either. The Taxpayers Union might like to look at the small waste of money incurred in that process.

by Rich on March 05, 2014

I can't imagine a scenario where Labour will have the numbers with just Peters, even if they get the Maori Party onside.

The best plan for the Greens would be to staunch it out. Give Labour the numbers for an initial confidence vote by abstaining or supporting, whichever is the minimum then play it by ear. (Alternately, if National try and form a government, vote them out). Come budget time, offer up an alternative set of budget proposals and make them a condition of their vote on supply.


by Richard Aston on March 05, 2014
Richard Aston

Good post Tim.

Yes lots of uncertainty this time which I think will be a good motivation for the non-voters who didn't bother last time because it was so predictable.

However you are right in calling for the two majors to be clearer about where their coalition allegiances lie. Same for the minor parties actually. I suspect they are all waiting to see which way the polls moves over the election campaign before they decide but that is so cynical.

If Cunliffe thinks Labour can win without the greens he is dreaming, he may get Peters on board but as well all know Peters will extract the maximum advantages from the negotiations. As far as I can tell Peters is not a natural friend of the greens. Regardless,  Peters is polling marginally compared to the Greens he may not even be a contender so why risk pissing off a whole bunch of green/labour voters just on the chance Peters get a sizeable chunk of the vote?

by Graeme Edgeler on March 05, 2014
Graeme Edgeler

The Maori Party in 2008. There are times when the minor parties have provided some major shocks and made a major difference as to who gets to govern New Zealand.

You're going to need to explain this one a little more. While the Maori Party may have effected how National governed from 2008, I'm having some trouble seeing how they made a major difference as to who got to govern.

by Tim Watkin on March 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

I knew it was only a matter of time, Graeme. You're becoming predictable!

Perhaps I meant that it was a shock that the Maori Party joined a coalition with National. Perhaps I meant that they were part of a coalition that allowed National to have a working majority (even if they could've governed without them); that might not quite be as literal as you like, but National did need partners. Perhaps I meant that the Maori Party's decision has had ramifications for the 2011 election (and TTT by-election) and could yet make a difference in this year's election. You choose. 

by Tim Watkin on March 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

Thanks Richard, yes I think they need to be clearer. And it's important they keep getting questioned on that. I think it's reasonable for voters to want to know about not just individual party policies, but scenarios about how those parties and policies could knit together in coalition.

@Rich, you're right. Very unlikely, which makes Cunliffe's obfuscation rather odd, don't you think?

by stuart munro on March 06, 2014
stuart munro

I think you're reading too much into Cunliffe's refusal to detail his coalition plans Tim. Gower is not a Cunliffe supporter, he would exert himself to find fault with whatever Cunliffe said. There are many possible outcomes in terms of coalitions, but Cunliffe will sit down with the Greens and talk about them in camera. With a less hostile interviewer he might have let out a few general ideas - but they would only draw fire from Gower. Better to let the odious little sh*t marinate in his own bile than get into a fight about decisions that are purely speculative until the proportions of the votes are firmer. A Green party with 20% will get more cabinet space than one with 10, and the success or failure of several minor parties cascade into decisions about who to talk to and what to promise. Exposing this kind of speculation to an enemy only gives them opportunity to attack without any beneficial prospect.

by Andrew Osborn on March 06, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Good post Tim!

I think you're expecting too much from both the voter and from the MMP system.

I would guess a large faction of the voting population care more about who wins The Block then the coming General Election. Sad to say this.

The MMP system comes down to one simple question: Who can do a deal on the day after the election. Nothing more & nothing less. There are no rules about transparency - there's just horse trading.





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